Stranger harassment, also referred to as street harassment, is associated with posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in women, according to new research published in the journal Sex Roles. The findings provide evidence that experiences of unwanted sexual attention from strangers in public settings pose a threat to women’s psychological health.
“I was interested in this topic because despite stranger/street harassment being such a prevalent experience for women, it is very much understudied,” said study author Rachel Carretta, a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee.
“Stranger harassment is often trivialized, perhaps because it is so common, rendering it an invisible social problem. My interest stemmed from wanting to make this issue more visible in terms of how it may relate to women’s mental health.”
In the study, 367 women completed an assessment of PTSD symptom severity before filling out questionnaires regarding stranger harassment, shame, self-blame, fear of rape, feminist identification, conformity to feminine norms, and demographic information.
The researchers found that women with more experiences of stranger harassment — including verbal harassment, sexual pressures, and unwanted touching from stranger — were at greater risk for PTSD symptoms. Stranger harassment was also associated with increased self-blame, shame, taking rape precautions, fear of men, and safety concerns, which in turn were all related to PTSD symptom severity.
Adherence to sexual fidelity norms, such as feeling guilty after having a one-night stand, was found to enhance the association between stranger harassment and PTSD symptom severity by increasing shame. Identifying as a feminist, on the other hand, weakened the association between stranger harassment and PTSD symptom severity by reducing self-blame.
“Women’s experiences of stranger harassment are linked to posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms through shame, self-blame, and fear. While endorsing feminist attitudes/beliefs may serve as a protective factor against stranger harassment, adhering to traditional feminine gender norms may serve as a risk factor,” Carretta told PsyPost.
The study — like all research — includes some limitations. About half of the participants were currently enrolled in a college or university, but 89% were White.
“The major caveat of this research is that it is a cross-sectional, correlational study and thus no cause-and-effect claims can be made. Another caveat is the lack of racial diversity in the sample of women we studied. A question that still needs to be addressed is ‘how might stranger harassment impact women of color compared to white women?’ This is a particularly important question as women of color may experience stranger harassment as both racial and gender discrimination,” Carretta said.
The study, “Stranger Harassment and PTSD Symptoms: Roles of Self-Blame, Shame, Fear, Feminine Norms, and Feminism“, was authored by Rachel F. Carretta and Dawn M. Szymanski.